Sunday, January 30, 2005

The Good Food Guide to Tibet

picnictable, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

In his writings about travel in Tibet and western China in the 1920s, Joseph Rock makes surprisingly little comment about what the local people ate. Apart from saying they grew crops such as barley, he almost never mentions food.

He himself travelled with a Naxi cook who he had taught how to cook a few simple European dishes. He also took a folding table and cutlery, and tried to dine in some style as he travelled.

One of the few mentions he makes of Tibetan food is on his first visit to the King of Muli:

"After the lecture the king urged me to partake of Muli delicacies. There was a grey coloured buttered tea in a porcelain cup set in exquisite silver filigree with a coral studded silver cover. On a golden plate was what I thought to be, forgetting where I was, Turkish delight. But it proved to be ancient mottled yak cheese interspersed with hair. There were cakes like pretzels, heavy as rocks.
It was an embarrasing situation but in order not to offend His Majesty I took a sip of tea, which was like liquid salted mud."

Later on he was given gifts of food by the king:

"There were eggs in plenty, two bags of beans for the horses and one of flour; one wormy ham; dried mutton; lumps of gritty salt, more of that doubtful yak cheese and butter wrapped in birch bark.

The dried legs of mutton and yak cheese were literally walking all over the terrace of our house, being propelled by squirming maggots the size of a man's thumb. I was informed that these were the choicest delicacies from the king's larder. As none of my party wanted the lively food, we gave it to the beggars, who fought for it like tigers."

Over the next few posts I will put up some pictures of the food I have emcountered in present day Kham.

Butter tea, tsampa and yak cheese

buttertea, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

At Mongdong our evening meal consisted of yak cheese, eaten with chilli sauce, tsampa [see below for more details] and yak butter tea. And for me, some roast potatoes.


tsampa, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

This is the everyday food of most Tibetans. Think of ground oatmeal mixed up with thick creamy milk into a muesli-like consistency, then kneaded into a dough-like bites. It tastes just like you would expect a mixture of barley and yak butter to taste.

Macaroni, Tibetan style

macaroni, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

Here is a meal cooked up by a family living at the base of Mt Muti Konka, on the shores of the lake Chang Haizi. It consists of stir fried fatty pork, plus a concotion that I can only liken to macaroni. Yak cheese is curdled on sticks in an old kettle, and then the stringy product is cooked up with green chillies. You can also see the momo bread that is baked in the ashes of the fire.

Roast potatoes are another staple food.

A Tibetan dinner party at Yulongsi

family yulongsi, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

On the way to Minya Konka (Gongga Shan) I stopped at the settlement of Yulongsi before tackling the Tsemi Pass. Here the extended family of my guide Gong Xian Yao are posing for a photograph over dinner. The typical dishes of Kham Tibetan cuisine are all there: butter tea, momo bread, sour yak yoghurt and cheese with green chillis.

Wuxu Hai (伍须海) - Making butter tea

suyoucha2, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

On the shores of Wuxu Lake near Jiulong I spent an afternoon sitting in the homestead of these Tibetan farmers, sheltering from the wind and rain squalls. Here my host is making butter tea by the traditional method: mixing yak milk and hot water in a kind of elongated wooden bucket with a plunger. That rhythmic sucking sound is the background music of Tibetan household life.

Have some more butter tea!

suyoucha, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

As you sit around the fire [kao huo] which is always the centrepiece of any Tibetan home, you will be constantly offered more butter tea. Your bowl will be topped up continually.

"He suyoucha ba!"

Tibetan woman makes buttermilk

curds, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

One of the lovely things about travelling in Tibet and Kham is that it is like going back to a time when our nursery rhymes were created. As in "Little Miss Muffett sat on her tuffet eating her curds and whey ..."
Everything is back to basics and you can see exactly where your food comes from.

Here my Tibetan host is churning the yak cream by a hand cranked handle to separate the buttermilk from the yak butter.

The one-eyed cook of Muli

kitchen cook, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

This cheerful monk in the kitchen at Muli monastery was also the head cook. Here he is making butter tea, "suyou cha", by the traditional plunger and bucket method. He was very interested in cars and kept asking me what models were most popular in Australia!

Muli monks have lunch on the terrace

monklunch, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

All that chanting must give them an appetite. These novice monks at Muli were eating their lunch outside the refectory where food was cooked for about 80 people.

What the monks of Muli have for lunch

muli lunch, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

I was quite surprised to find that the monks of Muli ate so well. I imagined their diet would be the usual butter tea and yak cheese fare, but this was the lunch tray served up in their refectory.

It is a vegetarian platter and seemed very similar to the Korean dishes I have eaten: lots of pickled vegetables, [some quite spicy like kim chi] and most delicious!

Kangding's fruit and vegetable markets are well supplied

market1, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

On a lane behind the main street of Kangding you can find the muddy and shambolic market that sells all kinds of fruit and vegetables. As you can see, there is no shortage of variety. I would guess Kangding has a climate similar to that of somewhere like Scotland, so the presence of fruit like pears is quite impressive.

Vegetable market, Kangding

market2, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

As you can see they have tomatoes, potatoes, ginger and green beans,amongst other things.

Vegetable barrow, Kangding

barrow, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

Yet more varieties of vegetables for sale in the Kangding market. In this picture, the fruits are: orange or tangerine, pomegranate, grapefruit and pumpkin. I

Market barrow, Kangding

barrow2, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

Pumpkins in the market in Kangding. For a high altitude town they certainly seem to have a lot of fresh fruit and veg.

Kangding butcher, 2004

meat2, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

Well at least you know it's fresh. Just up the lane from the veggie market is the meat market where yak carcasses are laid out on trestle tables. It is gory stuff, not sight for vegetarians or the faint of stomach. There are bloody hunks of meat, bits of bone, yak hair and even complete severed yak heads [not pictured]. And yet this dainty lady has no qualms about asking for half a kilo of best sirloin. Most of the butchers seemed to be Tibetan, but they may have been Hui Muslims - it was hard to tell. Certainly there was a meat stall outside the mosque and Hui Muslims have traditionally been the butchers of Tibet - a job not deemed appropriate for people whose Buddhist beliefs are against harming any living thing.

Kangding meat market

meat, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

This guy must have a strong stomach! Not put off by the hunks of bloody flesh around him nor the flies they attracted. And the stink ...

Cows head, Kangding market

cowshead, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

This mouth watering sight was seen in the Kangding meat market on my way to Muti Konka in 2004. It looks like a pig's head but closer scrutiny shows its snout is bovine rather than porcine.

Yading Chicken

Yading Chicken, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

What do you do when there's no fridge? In Yading the temperatures were so cold you hardly needed one. As seen by this preserved chicken hung up on the wall of one of the shacks near the Chonggu monastery.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

"How oppressive to be buried alive in these vast canyon systems!"

yangwekong, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

When I was reviewing Joseph Rock's 1920s hand drawn maps I found that the route he took on the eastern side of the Yalong canyon tallied with a road marked on a modern Chinese traffic atlas. The names of some of the villages he recorded also tallied with modern day Chinese villages: Rock's Sedjuron was
surely Sanyanlong, Deon must be Diwan. These villages lay in a valley
called Yangwe Kong that Rock passed through after climbing out of the Yalong gorge. After the scenic wonders of
Mutikonka, it seem to have depressed him:

"No outlook in any direction! Here people live and die without the slightest knowledge of the outside world. How oppressive to be buried alive in these vast canyon systems!
Or are they happier for it?"

Pumi people have doctors now

doc, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

In 1929 Joseph Rock's passed through the remote Yangwe Kong valley and made these comments about the health of the local Pumi people:
"Whenever we came to a village the peasants would gather about
us and with folded hands would beseech me to dispense medicine to
sick relatives. Often I could help. Sometimes I had to refuse"

In 2004, on our way through the same valley, we paused briefly at a village called Sanyanlong where there were
a couple of stores, a clinic and a sizeable, neat Chinese-style
school. The students flocked out to see us, and Wang, being director
of education went in to make a quick visit.
I popped my head into the clinic, a simple treatment room where a
demur female doctor in a white coat was inserting an IV drip into a
woman's arm. "Conditions here are very poor," she said

At least now they had a clinic.

Doctor and Health Bureaucrat - Pumi Land

medics2, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

In this picture we see the local doctor, Dr Song, talking to local leader Zago Tsering, who was on a tour of the isolated and roadless Yangwe Kong valley near Jiulong. Zago is the head of the local education department, but retains an interest in the health department he headed up for 12 years, and hence is on friendly terms with the local medics.

ER, Tibetan style

medics, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

This is your typical clinic set up in a rural setting in Kham. It's a single room dispensary-cum-surgery in the village square. They have a reasonable stock of essential western medicines [antibiotics, antihypertensives, etc]and quite a few traditional Chinese and Tibetan herbal ones too.

No doctor. The clinic was run by a nurse-paramedic - the modern equivalent of the barefoot. Anything serious would be referred on to Deqin, half a day away.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Outpatients on the Mekong

medic3, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

More medicine - this time in the Tibetan/Naxi village of Cizhong on the upper Mekong, near Deqin. These patients have been treated at the clinic you can see above. The man is undergoing acupuncture for a painful osteoarthritis of the knee. Looks painful to me. The hospital waiting room and outpatients doubles as the basketball court. There's multidisciplinary teamwork for you.

Acupuncture on the Upper Mekong

knees, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

Here is the patient with his acupuncture needles (nails) in the knee. Well it's probably no worse than taking Vioxx.

Monday, January 24, 2005

The cook, Mundon

potsnpans, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

This is the cousin of my friend Zago Tsering. This Pumi man lives in the isolated hamlet of Mundon (Mongdong in Chinese), perched at 4000 meters on the edge of the canyon above the Yalong river that flows in a huge north-south trench some 100km west of Jiulong.

The hamlet of Mundon (猛董), near Jiulong

mundonbw1, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

When Rock visited this awesome canyon in 1922 he described it in glowing terms but took very few pictures of it. Perhaps he had bad weather.

View over the Yalong canyon from Mundon (猛董)

mundonbw2, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

In 1924 Joseph Rock passed by this way, en route from Muli (that horizon opposite) to Kangding and Gongga Shan. He described Mundon as a dreary hamlet but I found it to be a delightful place. You can read about my adventures there in the long post from earlier this month.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Tibetan priest with broken watch, Minya Konka, 1994

minya monk, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

The problem with foreign aid: This monk at the Minya Konka gompa had been given a watch by a team of American mountaineers who had used the gompa as their base camp some years before. He liked the watch but it was an electronic one and the battery had run out. He didn't realise this, and asked me to fix it.

Given that it was about a week's journey to the nearest town, which probably did not sell the batteries anyway, there wasn't much I could do. I said I would try to bring him one on my next visit and kept my promise. Sadly, on my return to the gompa in 1999 I was told the old man had died. Time waiteth for no man.

Naxi priest with instruments, 1924

priests, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

Thi is a tomba who performs a ritual dance wearing a diadem: each of the crown's five panels depicts a principal Naxi god. Taken by Joseph Rock near his home of Nguluko.

Peaks around Minya Konka, 1924

minya peaks, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

This picture was taken in the vicnity of the one below, but nearer to the Djesi La (which divides Lao Yulin from the Yulongxi valley).

The caption for the picture is: "Crenelated Peaks Near the Roof of the World"

The ridge in the foreground forms a divide between the Riuchi and Djesi Valleys. These imposing summits from left to right are Chiburongi Konka, Riuchi Konkaand Mount Grosvenor.

Peaks around MInya Konka [Gongga Shan], 1999

minya flag land, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

This is a great view of the many peaks in the Minya Konka range, taken from the top of a ridge in the valley to the nrth of Yulongxi.

I came across this place by accident after we lost our horses in the night. Climbing the ridge to try find them, I stumbled on this pass with a cairn. It was a real slog to get up there, as it must have been 4200+ metres and the air was very thin.

Cairn depicting Tibetan way of life and death

skull, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

The skull of a horse or yak decorates this cairn at over 4000 metres near Minya Konka [Gongga Shan]. The cairn is composed of several slabs of rock, Mani stones in which are carved the Tibetan characters for Om Mane Padme Hum.

Seen between the Djesi La pass and Yulongxi in 1999.

Horse carving on cairn, near Minya Konka

horse carving, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

This is a detail from the cairn shown above. It appears to show a horse [and rider?] tethered to a frame. Note the tassles or balls weaved into the horse's tail - a feature often seen in Kham.

I wonder who took the time to carve this and whether they did it on site or at home and hauled the rock up from way below.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Konkaling monastery, near Yading

Gongaling, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

This amiable old man was at the Gongling [Konkaling] monastery near Yading Nature Reserve in Sichuan. Things have obviously changed a bit since Joseph Rock described the place as a refuge for the "scum of the outlaws".

"It is more than 20 years since outsiders have been privileged to make the pilgrimage around the [sacred peaks of Konkaling]. Should any outsider now venture into Konka land he would be robbed and then slain, after which the Konka outlaws would resume their own pious pilgrimage!"

I think this chap is really the travel writer Eric Newby, going undercover.

Eric Newby

Walabi village drum

walabi drum, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

A drum and some cymbals at the entrance to the village of Walabi, just up from the hot springs near Yongning (20km north of Lugu Lake).

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Porter 2003

porter2, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

This is the feller I employed to carry my bag and act as guide, adviser and umbrella carrier on the way from Yongning to Muli in 2003.

He is a Mosuo and comes from Wujiao, and called himself by his Chinese surname of Yang.

Actually I hired another guy for 300 kuai, who immediately subcontracted the job to this poor chap who only got 150 RMB!

Here he is sitting overlooking the Muli (Litang river) valley, just after we crossed the Gibbo Pass. We had just pulled off all our leeches (Xuechong) when I took this picture.

He was a nice bloke and I felt sorry for him and bought him a new pair of shoes when we reached Muli. Bloody expensive they were too - 120 kuai. Ungrateful git, he then nicked all my food when he left to go back to Wujiao.

Porters, 1923

porters, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

These are men of the Bai minority, many live in Dali, photographed by Rock in 1923.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Temple interior, 1925

interior7, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

"An impressive example of sumptuous temple decorations ..."

This was taken by Joseph Rock at Labrang monastery in 1925. It represents the Dju Kung or Lord's House. The garlands strung from the altar are seeds from the East Indian trumpetflower.

Muli monastery deities

muli int6, originally uploaded by jiulong.

As seen in May 1994.

Muli deity, 1994

muli int7, originally uploaded by jiulong.

"A long flight of rocky steps led to the inner shrine, housing many gilded gods under yellow silk umbrellas ... in the centre was one swaddled in yellow cloth, entirely hidden, too sacred to be gazed upon." J.F. Rock, Land of the Yellow Lama, 1924.

Muli umbrellas

muli int9, originally uploaded by jiulong.

"Long cylindrical umbrellas of blue, yellow and purple silk hung from the ceiling, while against the whole length of the posterior wall was stretched an enormous painting of Buddhist scenes."

"This sanctuary was the only place where we were asked not to take any pictures ..."
- J.F. Rock, Muli, 1924.

Muli monastery 木里大寺

muli int4, originally uploaded by jiulong.

This is inside the main temple. Taken in 1994.

Muli Lama-King, 1924

muli king, originally uploaded by jiulong.

The name of this lama ruler was Chote Chaba. He was both the head lama and ruler of the small Muli kingdom in its semi-autonomous days of the early 20th century.

Here he is on his throne in his Muli palace. Behind him is a mural of Hoshang, the "Laughing Buddha".

Chote Chaba ruled Muli in an autocratic and eccentric way. He forced the peasants to kowtow to him and kept them enslaved through high interest loans and confiscation of land and kidnapping family members. He had his subjects thrown into a nightmarish dungeon in stocks for minor infractions of his petty rules.

And yet Rock found him to be almost child-like in his ways of the world. Chote Chaba kept the mummified body of his uncle in his room, and he believed thunder was made by dragons in the clouds. He thought Washington DC was near Beijing, and was unaware of events such as the First World War or aeroplanes.

Chote Chaba was murdered in the 1930s by soldiers of a Chinese warlord who he had previously double crossed and ambushed while travelling through Muli territory.

Muli Lama 2003

muli int8, originally uploaded by jiulong.

I took this picture of the head Lama of Muli presiding over an all-day ceremony in August 2003. I was not allowed in the main temple, but was permitted to take pictures form the gallery - hence this perspective.

Muli ceremony, 2003

5, originally uploaded by jiulong.

This all day ceremony took place during my visit in August of 2003. The monks would chant for hours on end, reciting religous texts over and over in a mesmerising and weirdly fluctuating tempo. Their voices would rise and fall, disappearing and reappearing seemingly at random. It reminded me of the football chants of 40,000 fans I used to hear at Elland Road - "Walk on, walk on ..."

Butter prayer candles, Kangding, 2004

muli int2, originally uploaded by jiulong.

These offerings were on the main altar at Anjue Si in Kangding.

Muli monastery ceremony 2003

muli int1, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Taken during the middle of an all day cermony at the yellow hat monastery of Muli, in August 2003.

Choni monastery interior, 1925

interior1, originally uploaded by jiulong.

This is the Buddhist monastery of Choni [now Jone] in Gansu province, where Rock visited in 1925 on his way to the "Mountains of Mystery" - Amnye Machen at the headwaters of the Yellow river.

For some reason - perhaps due to lack of flash - Rock didn't take many pictures inside temples or of the ceremonies conducted within their gloomy interiors.